Wednesday, October 27, 2021

OUANGA (1936)

Adam, an American businessman who owns a sugar plantation in Haiti, is returning there from New York City via ocean liner with his fiancée Eve. One night on deck, they are confronted by Clelie, owner of a neighboring plantation on the island, who followed Adam to New York and back. The problems are twofold. First, Clelie was apparently a casual lover of Adam's and is upset to be thrown over for Eve. Second, Adam is white and Clelie is of mixed race. Clelie tries to bribe Eve's Black maid to help her sneak a voodoo-cursed charm (ouanga) onto Eve's person; she offers the maid a love ouanga to make Adam's Black valet fall in love with her, but the valet claims he has "no truck with women." Back in Haiti, tensions increase as Adam's Black overseer LeStrange tries to stake a claim on Clelie, kissing her and telling her to forget Adam, but she calls him "Black scum" and tries to deny the Black half of her heritage. When the ouanga falls out of Eve's purse and she is told what it is, she faints. Soon, a new plotline develops as we discover that Clelie is a voodoo priestess, and presides over rituals in which recently dead people have their clothes taken away, and then are reanimated to become zombie slaves of whoever has the clothes. Clelie now plans to raise two zombies to snatch Eve away from safety to become the sacrifice in a voodoo ritual. Adam may not be able to thwart Clelie, but the jealous LeStrange has his own plans.

To get the movie's alternate title, THE LOVE WANGA, out of the way, "wanga" is a variant spelling of "ouanga" (the voodoo charm). The Love Wanga was a reissue title, and the title given to the DVD release of this movie, but it seems to invite chuckles and this is not a comedy so I prefer to use the original title. This is a low-budget indie production with all the hallmarks of a Poverty Row movie: weak acting, weak screenplay with plot holes, too many cases of "one take and done." The background music is especially distracting, often being far too jaunty for the proceedings, particularly in a scene where LeStrange threatens to kill Clelie. Nevertheless, there are things here to recommend an October viewing for classic movie fans. It was shot on location in Jamaica (after Haiti proved unfriendly), though honestly, it could have been shot in southern California for all it matters to the look of the film. The scenes of voodoo ritual and the very brief shot of the two zombies rising from the grave are effective. Light-skinned Fredi Washington, (the white-passing daughter of Louise Beavers in the original Imitation of Life), is fine as Clelie, even if the racial politics of the movie are a little strange. LeStrange, the overseer, is played by the white actor Sheldon Leonard (pictured above), and though he doesn't wear blackface, he also doesn't look the part (his only makeup seems to be dark circles around his eyes), especially weird for a character who insults Clelie for not accepting her racial background. Philip Brandon (Adam) and Marie Paxton (Eve) are adequate; Brandon went on to a career as an assistant director. The valet and the maid are around mostly for comic relief, mainly for a scene in which they think they've tackled a zombie. Rough around the edges, for sure, but interesting for fans of the genre and era, or for those interested in the racial politics of the age. [DVD]

1 comment:

dfordoom said...

It's pretty difficult for me to resist any movie dealing with voodoo. Which makes this one at least slightly tempting.